The University of Chicago is launching the nation’s first quantum technology accelerator program, offering $20 million for startup companies to develop everything from unhackable internet systems and superfast computers to sensors that can detect disease on a cellular level.
Based at the university’s Booth School of Business, Duality plans to help up to 10 quantum startups per year by providing office and lab space, access to research facilities and $50,000 in unrestricted funds. If successful, the accelerator could turn the South Side of Chicago into the Silicon Valley of quantum technology — a next-generation convergence of science and industry.
“If you look at the dawn of the age of semiconductors, this is, I think, an equivalent to that,” said Jay Schrankler, associate vice president and head of the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
The Polsky Center is leading the project with the Chicago Quantum Exchange, an academic research hub at the university. Duality’s other founding partners include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Laboratory and P33.
An emerging field that seems closer to Star Trek than startups, quantum technology operates at the subatomic level, building devices that detect, harness and leverage the tiniest particles to make potentially enormous advances in a wide range of applications.
David Awschalom, a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, said the accelerator will initially focus on commercializing three areas: computing, communications and sensors.
“There are all these things that are emerging as applications,” said Awschalom. “But probably the biggest things aren’t clear yet.”
Quantum computers will “exponentially speed up” calculations, enabling functions that traditional computers won’t be capable of for at least 50 years, Awschalom said.
A new class of sensors would “revolutionize medicine,” allowing doctors and scientists to explore living cells to determine how medicines are working, he said.
An early business application may be a quantum internet, an unhackable information pipeline that financial institutions could use for secure transactions. Last year, scientists from Argonne and the University of Chicago launched a 52-mile quantum loop in the southwest suburbs to test out the communications technology.
“One of the things that’s baked into quantum technology is security,” Awschalom said. “You will know for sure if someone has eavesdropped.”
Brian DeMarco, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the Chicago quantum accelerator is early to the game, but not too soon in a competitive global market, where other nations have already invested billions in developing the technology.
“There has been an explosion in the last few years of interest in quantum technologies,” said DeMarco, head of Quantum Leap Challenge Institute funded by the National Science Foundation. “And the U.S. was a little bit behind.”
China alone has invested about $11 billion in quantum technology, DeMarco said. President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan calls for $35 billion devoted to “technology breakthroughs,” including quantum computing.
Duality is taking applications for its first round of awards at its website, www.dualityaccelerator.com, through May 14. The program is seeking a diverse pool of applicants based on race, gender and ethnicity.
If Duality is successful, it could be a boon for Hyde Park and the South Side, attracting startups, manufacturers and tech talent, and bringing new jobs to the area.
“There will be an exponential growth in jobs in this arena,” Schrankler said. “All of a sudden, on the South Side, you’re going to see all these startup companies coming to Chicago to be close to that epicenter.”
It may be 10 years or more before some of the quantum technologies gain widespread traction, Awschalom said, but Chicago is well-positioned to be the nexus of development. It may also prove to be a great career choice for the next generation. He said there will be a need for a million quantum engineers in the U.S. in the next decade.
As to what they may be building in the future, the sky is the limit.
“You can teleport with quantum technologies, but right now just one particle at a time,” Awschalom said.